Let’s pretend for a second that you are a positive trainer who uses methods based on science. That is a pretty big club. It’s also a pretty handy business strategy. For one thing, it differentiates your style from “those other trainers,” who are assumed to be un-positive and unscientific. It also implies that you are more educated than your competition and have diligently studied learning theory – the science of behavior as accepted by behavior analysts, ethologists and comparative psychologists. You may belong to an organization that offers “continuing education credits” just like people who have certifications in medicine and practical fields of psychology and counseling. You may be authorized to have letters after your name because you passed a written test by your certifying organization. The letters are supposed to prove that you have extra training and were certified by a knowledgeable, objective, accredited organization to be really good at what you do. The certification implies that someone actually observed your work, though there is currently no professional organization that actually does that. Needless to say, the general public will assume that you are far more kind and effective as a trainer than those who are non-positive and non-scientific. Regrettably, there are several rather large problems with this scenario: In the language of science; positive doesn’t mean nice, the science you are attempting to use to validate your methods isn’t really science, it doesn’t really work even when done perfectly, nobody actually saw you train an animal to get your certification and last, but not least, a very important person has been left out of the process. Here is a short summation of what I am talking about.
- Positive Doesn’t Mean Nice:
In science, especially behavioral science, positive doesn’t mean nice, good or beneficial. Modern trainers use the term (and all of its derivatives using adaptations of “paw-sitive” to imply dogs + nice.) The only possible logical use of the word positive would be to imply beneficial results – but that isn’t what they mean. They are strictly talking about process, not outcome. In science, positive means “added” or “additive.” Hitting a dog with a pillow and stopping it from jumping on people is a positive punishment procedure because the aversive stimulus (the pillow) was added to the event.
- Behavior Analysis/Learning Theory isn’t really a science: Science requires veritas – truth for truth’s sake. Behavior analysis is built on a flawed research protocol that is intended to prove hypotheses rather than validating objective observations of behavior. More about that, later.
- Limited/Wrong Tools: This perspective doesn’t work because it actively blocks the use of tools that can stop or inhibit behavior. No animal can be trained to a high level of performance without the use of aversive control. At least, none ever have. That is because if there are no “negative” consequences for errors there is no incentive for the animal or human to improve their performance. EG: The next bomb detection dog you see was trained with some element of punishment for failure or negative reinforcement to compel the dog to do something it didn’t want to do. You better hope it wasn’t trained “all positive.” Why? Because the dog never had anything to fear if it screwed up. If the word fear bothers you and you instantly have “negative” feelings about it, I suggest you consider how much of your life is governed by fear – such as not stepping in front of a bus. The assumption that fear is a bad thing or that it is always traumatic is simply another rhetorical distortion of modern trainers and behaviorists. If your life is being protected by someone who has no fear of missing an explosive device you are not really protected.
- Nobody Observed Your Methods to Prove You are Qualified: The dirty little secret of modern dog training and behavior is that there isn’t a single certification from veterinarian behaviorist down to the many associations that claim to be professional organizations that requires more than a written test – some of them multiple guess. A friend of mine was certified by a major dog training organization and outright lied about how she trains. She knew that if she told the truth she wouldn’t have been certified because I fixed her two dogs that were fighting to the point of death. I used punishment to stop the aggression. i.e. She couldn’t tell the truth because punishment to stop aggression – the scientifically validated way to stop aggression – is taboo. To tell the truth about her own experience and her adroit, safe and skillful use of punishment to stop similar behaviors would have blocked her certification. Why did she even want the certification? To compete with “scientific, modern trainers” who have letters after their names. All of these various credentials are merely ways to try and control the market through implied but unproven expertise and skill.
- The Dog Owner is Absent:
Behaviorists and modern, positive trainers offer methods that please them and forget that dog owners do not have unlimited funds, time and patience to live forever with low-expectation non-solutions. There is no effort to offer knowledge aimed at the “end user” in the world of modern dog training or behaviorism.There is no thought to the damage that is done by offering bogus, never proven advice. There is only the quest to rein supreme in the public eye while ignoring the dog and owner – the very reason to offer behavior services in the first place. The word “fraud” comes to mind.
- Tell Me a Person’s Tools and I’ll Tell You What They Can’t Do: By definition, positive reinforcement increases behavior. It cannot stop behavior. That is done by punishment. If you preach that you do not use punishment it means that there are limitations to the services you offer. This fact is covered up by the fictional and unsupported claim that modern scientific methods can control all behaviors. That is a logical contradiction. Those methods can’t stop anything. To believe their rhetoric you must assume that there is never a reason to stop a behavior, now.
Contradictions: Logical and Rhetorical
To really appreciate the problem with behavioral science and its practical translation, modern training and behaviorism, it helps to examine their chosen rhetoric. The first problem is that you can’t use the word positive to mean nice, good or beneficial and still claim to be scientific. In science the word positive means “additive” as with positive or negative numbers. The scientific definition of behavioral effects uses the word in this sense. That means that if you “add” a pop with a choke chain the act is “positive” even though it isn’t considered a pleasant experience and may act to deter a behavior. Putting a dog in a crate to create a “time-out” is therefore negative because it subtracts free movement. The same is true of a leash. It uses a negative, the removal of free movement, to teach the dog to walk with a human. Meaning if you use a leash you are not a “positive” trainer. In case you don’t know, all trainers use leashes. This brings us to a wise thought – no philosophy can work if its foundation is based on half-truths, distortions and outright inaccuracies. Behavioral science is all of that. Modern training is even worse. They don’t even know the real definitions. They are merely copying someone else’s jargon.
The “P” Word and Other Lies:
According to the man most responsible for behavioral science and learning theory, B.F. Skinner, punishment is the behavioral effect that causes things to decrease or stop. That is a pretty straight forward definition but it leaves a question unanswered. Why did Skinner select a pejorative term for the behavioral effect that teaches fine motor skills, needed inhibitions to dangerous objects, animals and events and generally keeps us alive? Conversely, why did he unequivocally endorse the behavioral effect that causes piracy, theft, robbery, murder and all sorts of heinous acts – positive reinforcement. He did it because he held to a philosophy that dates back to the first century – normative hedonism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines the term as, “…Normative hedonism is the claim that all and only pleasure has worth or value, and all and only pain has disvalue.” While devotees of Skinner will fight this thought, tooth and nail, it is the only explanation that covers all the bases. In essence, Skinner claimed to hate coercion in all forms. The Association for Behavior Analysis International – a professional organization of behavioral scientists founded by Skinner – offers this statement about the man.
“Throughout his career, Skinner opposed the use of all forms of punishment; he advocated positive ways of changing behavior.”
If true, this is the ideology of a simpleton, an infant or an ideologue. In essence it says that there is never a need to stop or compel behavior. That is because you cannot stop or inhibit a behavior with “positive ways”. It also implies that all aversive events are damaging and none are beneficial. Worse, it actually suggests that there is never a need to stop a behavior immediately though any rational observation contradicts this. EG: A child with OCD that pounds her own eyes – having detached her retina on two separate occasions. By Skinner’s own definition, positive reinforcement increases behavior. It cannot stop anything. The hedonist ignores reality to pander to an ideological belief – which is definitely anti-scientific. When Skinner wandered into the world of creating a science of behavior he did it with the mind of an ideologue. When objective investigation deviated from his personal beliefs, he changed the experimental process to prove what he wanted. That is the foundation of learning theory – and that critical flaw is still contained within the discipline of behavior analysis. Here’s a short recap.
1938: Skinner publishes his magnum opus Behavior of Organisms. The word punishment is not in the index. Consider that for a moment. This is his only scholarly work and he doesn’t use the word that describes human-kind’s go-to process for stopping unacceptable behavior. However, he does talk about the phenomenon and make some pretty strong statements about it.
“One kind of reinforcing stimulus in Type R apparently produces a decrease in strength of the operant. If pressing the lever is correlated with strong electric shock, for example, it will eventually not be elicited at all.”
Skinner admits that connecting a particular type of consequence to an event will cause a behavior to stop. However, in 1953, in Science and Human Behavior, he seems to have either forgotten that fact or learned something new. His perspective on the topic of punishment still hasn’t come into balance. In a book of 450 pages his devotes ten to punishment. Here’s what he said, 15 years after confirming what we all know – punishment can stop a behavior.
1953 – Science and Human Behavior: “More recently, the suspicion has also arisen that punishment does not in fact do what it is supposed to do. An immediately effect in reducing a tendency to behave is clear enough, but this may be misleading. The reduction in strength may not be permanent.”
These two statements are obviously contradictory; punishment can stop a behavior and punishment may not stop a behavior. If you are imagining that Skinner created an experiment that changed his mind you’d be wrong. Skinner changed the experimental process to prove his ideological belief. Brilliant, but sloppy, he left a paper trail that confirms what I have suggested. This is from the abstract of a paper by Azrin, Holtz and Hake from the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 1963. The title is Fixed Rate Punishment.
Responses were maintained by a variable-interval schedule of food reinforcement. At the same time, punishment was delivered following every nth response (fixed-ratio punishment).
Did you catch that? This wasn’t a study of punishment as a discrete phenomenon. Azrin cites Skinner for the methodology. This process is clearly a study of abuse called punishment. The poor little pigeons were kept starving, all seven of them. They were kept at 85% of normal weight to drive them to peck keys for food. Every X number of pecks, they get shocked – just as Skinner described with rats in Behavior of Organisms. According to the 1938 Skinner, the behavior should have disappeared. Oops. Skinner’s world requires data and suddenly there is no data because the pigeons aren’t pecking. Hmmmm. What to do? Why don’t we give them treats to make them peck and then shock them silly every once in awhile? Yeah, that’s the ticket. Then we generate numbers that can go on graphs. The data won’t describe punishment, but it will fit with the ideology. Cool. That is what justified the 1953 Skinner to say, in Science and Human Behavior, that punishment doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. He created an experimental process that proved a fiction.
You may not believe it yet, but that is the foundation for the modern understanding of punishment. First, using only seven animals to “prove” that punishment doesn’t work is nuts. Second, the basis for the statement about “recent suspicions” was the result of monkeying with the experimental process. In 1938 Skinner shocks the rat for pressing the lever. In 1963, Azrin, taking Skinner’s lead, reinforces the pigeons, shocks them periodically and oh-my-gosh the behavior doesn’t disappear – causing suspicions that punishment doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. How brilliant. Azrin’s abstract concludes with the dirty-little-secret that even these researchers recognized the fraud. It should be noted that Azrin, Holtz and Hake were working in Skinner’s lab when they did this study. (Note: Subsequent research by Azrin and others during the mid-60’s and 1970’s tried to set the record straight. These courageous scientists were drowned out by the already established catechism created by Skinner.)
Dirty Little Secret No.1
“This type of intermittent punishment produced less rapid and less complete suppression than did continuous punishment.”
Duh. Azrin can’t bring himself to leave out this fact. He was a great scientist and an honest man. He had to add that statement to the end of the abstract. To be plain, punishment does stop behavior, but this isn’t punishment. It’s clearly abuse called punishment. That is what Skinner needs to promote his fantasy. He can’t admit either that behaviors sometimes need to be stopped or that they can be stopped using punishment. In his world, a real world context is never included. That would allow common sense to contradict his assertions.
In fairness, Skinner’s fantasy is not unique or new. History illustrates many examples of fools who attempted to stop behavior using positive methods. It’s called bribery and appeasement. The iconic historical event that predicts the results of Skinners’ non-coercive ideology occurred in medieval Europe over 1,000 years ago. Anglo Saxons were forced to pay a tax to keep Danish Vikings from sacking their villages. It didn’t work. The Vikings took the money and sacked the villages anyway. Later, when the Danes were approaching Paris and the citizens of that city decided to pay the Vikings to leave them alone. That didn’t work either. After they were paid a handsome city’s ransom the Danes sacked the place anyway, just as they had in England. This is the origin of the old caution against paying Dane Geld – literally Dane Gold. Once paid there is no inhibition against the behavior it is intended to prevent and no incentive to spare the payer. Despite the myriad of examples in human behavior and history to point to the folly of this perspective, behavior analysts have followed Skinner’s lead for more than 70 years. The human destruction and devastation caused by this ideology is monumental.
Damaging Distortions and Great Dane Geld:
If you think my last comment is over-the-top, consider this event. When I was a young shelter manager we had the same problem every other humane society does – eight times too many animals. None of us were trainers or behaviorists and we didn’t know how to teach our prospective adoptive animals how to behave politely. Impolite behavior in the kennel means prospective adopters aren’t going to warm up to an animal. i.e. The animal is more likely to die. Even if the dog is adopted it is likely to be returned or cast off. If I had been more behavior oriented I would have figured out a Very Big Truth much earlier in my career. Fix the behavioral reason the dog is in the shelter and they might live. Fail to fix it and they are just like the rest of the 80% that will die.
The Gold Nugget:
One Saturday morning I was in the kennels as Cindy Mears, my weekend helper, was filling water buckets. Cindy was 16 and weighed about 100 pounds. I happened to be looking her way as she entered the kennel of a large, male Chesapeake retriever who weighed as much as Cindy but was far better muscled. As the dog blasted upward to jump on her, she leaned slightly backward and put one of her knees in his chest with some force. This was and is a common practice in kennels. If a dog knocks you down inside a kennel you stand a chance of being seriously injured. However, Cindy wasn’t injured. The dog went over backwards and hit the concrete with a mighty slap. It is likely that visual caused you to flinch and you imagined that the dog was injured. That means you have never worked in a kennel. What really happened was the dog rolled to his belly and shot forward into a perfect “sit” pressed up to Cindy’s legs and gazing lovingly into her eyes. He was trying to “suck up and get straight” – the most common reaction of a social animal that has offended a superior. He furiously wagged his tail and just about turned inside out trying to gain her approval. The one thing he didn’t do was jump upwards. By the rules of Skinner, that couldn’t have happened. The dog should have attacked her or fled in abject terror or continued to jump because of the “suspicion that punishment doesn’t do what it is supposed to do.” To Skinner and his modern disciples punishment is always damaging and doesn’t really work. Note: Skinner never worked in a kennel and to my knowledge, never worked with dogs.
Now we shoot forward two days. A family came in and adopted the Chesapeake. They specifically said that they picked him because he was the only dog available for adoption that didn’t jump all over them. In any logical analysis, Cindy saved that dog’s life by kneeing him in the chest. If we’d been ahead of the curve, we should have immediately started teaching dogs not to jump on people by whatever means fell short of death. What we did not do was imagine paying dogs some form of Great Dane Geld to prevent them from jumping. That doesn’t work any better with dogs as it does with Vikings.
This kennel vignette speaks volumes about the logical disconnect of modern trainers and behaviorists.
- The dog wasn’t harmed by being punished for an unacceptable behavior. Behaviorists always sound an alarm about punishment even if the animal obviously benefits and no harm comes to the animal. Hedonists never include the full context of real-world punishment or their house of cards falls apart. The full context of this event is that Cindy’s knee-to-the-chest was far less invasive than having a groomer nick a nail or a vet tech expressing swollen anal sacks. Those things are done every day with the approval of animal lovers and veterinary professionals. This leads to Dirty Little Secret No.2. If one can’t justify using punishment to save a dog’s life then there is no ethical justification for veterinary medicine or even grooming. Vets and groomers cause pain and fear as a regular part of their business, requested by owners. In all states, withholding treatment known to be effective is considered a form of animal abuse and has criminal penalties. The hedonist can’t admit that painfully pulling mats out of a Lhasa or cutting off a leg to stop an infection are moral acts, despite the pain and fear. Meaning the hedonist hypocritically attacks any kind of discomfort in training but ignores it when the problem is physical. As if the dog’s brain and body are two different things. Considering that behavior is the number one cause of death in companion animals, this is a bizarre position. Yet they believe it. The irony/ hypocrisy is even worse than it looks. If you take their “never cause discomfort” rule and swallow it, spaying and neutering become what they actually are – sexual mutilation for the convenience of the owner and a failed claim that it will reduce the dog and cat population. Dogs die from spaying and neutering. Dogs do not die from getting punished for jumping up on people. Which one should be acceptable? The punishment for unacceptable behavior saves lives. Many spayed and neutered dogs are destroyed each year. The hedonist cannot even be consistent in their outrage and still look rational. To be consistent they must attack veterinary medicine – but they don’t.
- The training was performed by a slim, teenage girl without a high-school diploma, let alone an advanced degree. Meaning academic credentials are not necessary to perform behavior modification. (Note: Training is synonymous with behavior modification. Calling it by a higher sounding name is simply vanity. What Cindy did could be called an operant conditioning behavior modification procedure. That would be a waste of words. ) We humans created dogs and have lived with them for more than 15,000 years. That is about 14,800 years longer than organized science or academically trained scientists. The proof of that is that Sir Isaac Newton was an alchemist who believed he could turn lead into gold. That is as silly as Skinner claiming that using exclusively positive reinforcement is a viable option for controlling dog behavior.
- Cindy saved the dog’s life. An all positive procedure would have made the dog one more jumping fool. Many dogs in shelters will not take treats. Training with positive reinforcement to remove a behavior is stupid. Teaching you French does not remove your knowledge of English. Teaching the dog to sit for treats (that he is unlikely to take) does not stop it from jumping on people. In this case, as a shelter manager responsible for making the best animals available for adoption, the Chesapeake would not have made the cut and I would have killed him as merely one more of the eight that weren’t going to get a home. (Or wouldn’t have stayed in the home after being adopted.)
- Withholding treatment known to be effective is immoral and unethical. Attempting to promote training methods that are not effective is a form of withholding treatment. As none of the “positive” methods have ever been tested in blind trials compared to practical dog training methods that include punishment, the claims of efficacy are simply smoke and mirrors buttressed by the public’s faith in scientific credentials. i.e. It’s a scam that leads to self-promotion, elevated social status, cash and the inevitable withholding of effective treatment. Worse, these people attack anyone who does promote effectiveness as the prime criterion for saving lives. The attacks are vicious and the result of a uniform irony – those who claim to hate punishment use it as a first resort to silence those who disagree with them.
I solemnly swear to preach the mantra, now give me my tenure, elevated status and money:
The reason that this kind of logic isn’t accepted within behavioral science is that academics have peddled distorted images of behavior for decades. By this practice they garner advanced degrees, not for telling the truth, but for repeating a catechism. If they adhere to the popular academic orthodoxy they can belong to the club. If they deviate they will be hounded out of the profession or marginalized. The end-game isn’t hard to see. By sticking to the positive-only mantra an academic behaviorist gets positive reinforcement for saying things that aren’t true, elevated status, money, speaking engagements at scientific conferences, tenure and text-book sales. Conversely, if they don’t preach to the choir, they are punished for speaking the truth. They do not get grant money. They don’t get tenure. They don’t get invited to speak at conferences. There are no awards for “best research into the use of punishment.” (Though vets who brilliantly cut flesh and bone – both destructive actions – are praised for being skilled surgeons) No one would display the award anyway even though it would mean a great advance in balancing the perspective of behavioral science. This bias is illogical. Any child can tell you that contrary to the scientific position, punishment isn’t always damaging. When the “all positive” training wheels come off, every child is punished for having sloppy balance. Over a series of crashes contrasted by flashes of successful riding we learn minute control over our muscles and maintain vigilance while riding a bike. Fine motor control cannot be learned without an aversive consequence for failure – even if the punishment is losing a game of “Pick Up Sticks”.
The reality is that in most cases, punishment is either life-saving or beneficial. We learn highly skilled behaviors because punishing consequences force us to be cautious either about our own safety, damage to valuable objects or failure to complete a task. Without punishment there would be no Stradivarius violins, Michelangelo’s David, brain surgery or bike-riding. If a person could grow up without punishment they would be dangerous – because it’s fun to run with scissors and all that implies.
Modern, scientistic, lucrative, status elevating, dog training:
In our modern world things that are new are considered better than things that are old. This is a child’s view of reality. Behavior isn’t new. Modern animals do not behave differently than ancient animals. At the same time Epicurus was creating a philosophy of normative hedonism (later adapted by Skinner), Hannibal crossed the Alps with more than 80 war-elephants. That was 2,000 years ago. Neither the modern mantra of positive training nor the methods that come from science can compare to training that focuses on reality and the full context of an animal’s life. If someone today wanted elephants to cross the Alps using “modern” methods they would likely fail. The Romans systematically trained giant Mastiffs to use a war-dogs. A single handler controlled five dogs weighing well over 100 pounds apiece. Could a PhD in behavior analysis do that using Skinner’s science? Nope. EG: At the Auburn University “Olfaction Project” sponsored by the DEA, giant Skinner boxes were created to test how precisely dogs could detect drugs. One of the continuing problems was that the graduate student behaviorists couldn’t control the dogs when they had to take them outside to pee. During the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of horses were taken from farmer’s fields and committed to battle within the space of a couple days. Could a professor from the Harvard Rat Lab do that? Nope. Creating arbitrary “modern” rules that fit an ancient philosophy of normative hedonism is infantile and obviously deceitful. While claiming that the animal’s welfare is at stake, they commit the sins of withholding treatment known to be effective, lying to aggrandize themselves and poisoning the minds of animal lovers to the safe, effective and rational use of both attractive and aversive control. The boogeyman of abuse they use as a justification for their ideology is as close as the nearest mirror.
Note: The word scientistic appears in B.F. Skinner’s apologia, About Behaviorism. He lists this as “having the appearance of science without the actual process of science.” He listed it as a criticism leveled at his ideology. The criticism was correct – he just couldn’t admit it.